What a wondrous thing college rock was in the ‘80s. An entire genre predicated on the willingness of young people to wander outside their prescribed bubbles of taste, to stumble around those hinterlands left of the dial in search of something better. Could such a thing really have existed? Yes, but only for a decade or the blink of an eye.
It was a miracle that could be measured in kilowatts — tens of thousands of them in some cases, propelling the sounds of bands like R.E.M. and The Replacements into dorm rooms across the country. It was a miracle that coalesced around student-run university and college campus radio stations, unbeholden to the same demands as their commercial FM counterparts and thus free to shape their programming the way they saw fit.
Sometimes this meant favoring distorted guitars over polished synthesizers, or giving primacy to sloppy power-pop melodies and slightly off-key harmonies. Sometimes it meant nothing at all, and that was even better. The absence of rules is a powerful drug in the hands of a student DJ who fancies himself a taste-maker.
For better or worse, the thrill of discovery that defined those halcyon days of college rock is difficult to even imagine now. Music streaming has come to act as a sort of golden handcuff, offering up an entire internet of songs ready to play or pause at the click of a button, but denying the rush of hearing a new song on the radio and scrambling to get it on tape. There aren’t really any best-kept secrets anymore, only the creeping sense that there’s too much good music in the world and not enough time to possibly listen to it all.
Yeah, yeah, we know: Boo hoo. But in the spirit of recovering some of that lost thrill, we’ve decided to pull together a list of 10 phenomenally great college rock bands you might have overlooked while combing through the stacks for a beaten copy of Murmur or Let It Be. They may not all be your cup of tea, but that’s the point. This music was never meant to be for everyone.